We spent much of last summer “Down Under” in Australia and New Zealand. Of course, in New Zealand, “down under” is up, since, when you’re in New Zealand, you’re up and we, on the wrong side of the world, are down. I said I spent summer there — July and August — but there, July and August are the dead of winter, not summer. There, people in the cold south, speak of the conservatism of the tropical “deep north.”
It’s all very upside down.
Down there, in New Zealand, or up there, or wherever, thumbing through their church’s new hymnal, I discovered a Christmas carol, Upside Down Christmas. In New Zealand, Christmas is the middle of their summer. Christmas is the day everyone goes to the beach. You can’t sing, In the Bleak Midwinter lying on a bright beach in Auckland. Listen to Carol our Christmas.
Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas;
snow is not falling and trees are not bare.
Carol the summer, and welcome the Christ Child,
warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.
Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas
snow is not falling and trees are not bare.
Carol the summer, and welcome the Christ Child,
warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.
Sign of the gold and the green and the sparkle,
water and river and lure of the beach.
Sing in the happiness of open spaces,
sing a nativity summer can reach!
Shepherds and musterers move over hillsides,
finding, not angels, but sheep to be shorn;
wise ones make journeys whatever the season,
searching for signs of the truth to be born.
Right side up Christmas belongs to the universe,
made in the moment a woman give birth;
hope is the Jesus gift, love is the offering,
everywhere, anywhere here on the earth.1
Odd, we come to Christmas thinking of Christmas as the time that sets everything right. Christmas is the time to come home, to return to that time in our memories when all was warm, and good and right, when everything that’s come upside down in our lives is set, at least for a couple of days in December, right side up.
Yet in the Bible, Christmas was that time when everything was turned upside down. It wasn’t about a loving, family-value mother caring for a conventional child. It was about Mary, an unwed mother, expectant in a most unconventional, upside down way. The message came not through the official, governmentally sanctioned communication channels; it was delivered in song by angels. The good news came not to the learned and the powerful; shepherds working the night shift first got the gospel. Not to the biblical scholars poring over the sacred texts in Jerusalem; but to Magi, Gentile outsiders, pagan astrologers, appeared the star to outsiders rather than insiders. The Babe whose birth we sing lay in a cattle feed trough, not an expensive pram.
When Mary got the news from the angel, telling her that she was going to have a baby, Immanuel, Messiah to bless the world, she sang a Christmas carol. Listen to what Mary sang. It’s called, “An Upside Down Christmas:”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.
His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary sings of a world turned upside down, of those who are high and exalted being brought low, of those who are poor and hungry being filled, all by the advent of a baby. Mary got her life turned upside down by that angel Gabriel. And then she sang of a child in her womb who was going to dislodge, disrupt, disturb.
Later, one of the charges against the Christians, followers of the babe, was, “These people are turning the whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6). So think of Christmas as a time when God began turning things upside down.
Consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, that’s why you are here today — because your world, rightside up, may not be all that it could be. And, consider the risk that you take by coming before the babe at Bethlehem. Consider the risk of a rightside world — or at least what we in our Northern hemispherical prejudice call “rightside up” — being turned upside down. Our Bible is full of stories of folk — folk like Mary, who had their world turned upside-down, inside-out when they came face-to-face with God.
They had met their Sophomore year at one of our information meetings for the Spring Student Mission Team to Honduras. We’ve been sending three mission teams to this, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, for some time now. Few students go on one of these teams and return as they came.
He excitedly told me that, after they met that night, they had been going out together and things seemed great between them.
“We’re going to Honduras together,” he said, “and who knows where it might lead for the two of us?”
So that day, around Christmas time, when I saw him walking dejectedly across campus, I asked, “What gives?”
“Marianne isn’t going to Honduras,” he said gloomily.
“I’m sorry. I wonder why,” I said. “She can’t afford the time?”
“No,” he said, “Marianne said that her older sister, Clarinda, went down there and it changed her. Made her Mom and Dad furious. Clarinda said she got born again down there. Marianne said she got turned upside down.”
Smart young woman, I say, to know that proximity to this manger is a dangerous place to be. Here’s a God who loves to invert.
“Oh come, let us adore Him,” we sing. We come expecting to meet what we have always thought before we came here. We come, expecting the fulfillment of all our desires, the confirmation of all our prejudices and preconceptions. See? The baby Jesus has a face just like our face. He is cuddly and cute, what harm could there be in a baby?
But I, who preach the Bible for a living, am here tonight to warn: Take care as you gaze into the manger. Beware coming too close to this savior. Think, before you hold out your hands to receive his bread and wine; you don’t know what he might hand you. There is a risk. Merry Upside Down Christmas.
1Music by Colin Gibson; Words by Shirley Murray

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